In April 2016, RIVM invited a team of scientists from international corollaries to evaluate the work RIVM is doing. This peer-to-peer evaluation focused on the entire organisation, providing very valuable insights. How does the National Institute for Public Health and the Environment (RIVM) succeed in realising its vision of ‘promoting public health and safeguarding environmental quality’? RIVM Director-General André van der Zande looks back on a year in which RIVM adopted a more public approach. “Gaining trust and then retaining it is seriously hard work.”
In April 2016, RIVM commissioned an audit by IANPHI, the International Association of National Health Institutes. This partnership joins approximately 100 sister institutes in the field of public health and sustainability. A delegation of these corollaries from other countries took a close look at the RIVM strategy and organisation. André van der Zande: “We were responsible for the kick-off; it was a self-evaluation. Once the audit was finished, we immediately launched improvement processes.” The auditor’s recommendations have been embedded in the ongoing work processes of the organisation.
The most remarkable development at RIVM – a trend that is not limited to this institute alone – is increased contact with the public, in addition to its extensive collaboration with scientists and other professionals. André van der Zande: “The auditors were impressed with our journey towards public-oriented operations, but there is still room for us to do so much more. Coming at us through all sorts of different channels in the course of our work, we regularly deal with personal emotions. Angry people, sad people. What is the best way for us to address them?” One of the activities planned for this year is a public-oriented event. “First and foremost, we want to get better acquainted”, says Van der Zande. “That’s why we will be organising a public conference in the 2017 Science Week. An important step, but of course it only sets us on the right path. Over the coming period, we will work towards even more visibility for the public.”
In the past year, RIVM employees were made more aware of their personal role in communication through the use of internal on-the-job training programmes. For instance, RIVM has been active on social media for some time now, but its presence could be increased by involving the scientists themselves – a conclusion shared by the auditors. In addition, Van der Zande considers it vitally important to be highly responsive to signals from society. “We should take those very seriously. We are constantly in contact with society, with the public. Starting from an early stage, we need to be able to recognise relevant indications and respond effectively.”
The auditors reached the conclusion that RIVM is ‘scientifically sound and highly credible’. The institute also has built solid relationships with national and international partners. The auditors also gave high praise to RIVM’s efforts to encourage innovation, for instance through the Innovation Award for the RIVM employee responsible for the most innovative initiative.
Van der Zande did find one conclusion from the audit somewhat disappointing. It was about Global Health: health and sustainability on a global level. RIVM demonstrates more than average engagement in that area, compared to its sister institutes abroad. However, the IANPHI commission did not share that conclusion, who often do more work directly in developing countries. “We have significantly more World Health Organisation Collaborating Centres than the average sister institute in other countries. We are very proud of that. The result does mean that we will still have to step up in increasing the visibility of our work.”
Having a proactive attitude is very important to RIVM in its role as a trusted advisor, the reliable and independent advisory body with its feet firmly planted in society. A government institute sometimes ends up in a reactive role. “Having a good reactive attitude is just as important; it builds confidence. Everything happens so much faster than in the past, so we need to continually stay alert. Gaining trust and then retaining it is seriously hard work.”
The audit provides that ‘extra affirmation’, Van der Zande believes. “The biggest compliment the auditors gave was that RIVM employees have a very inquisitive attitude at the core of what they do. One potential pitfall for many good professionals and scientists lies in being perceived as conceited. After all, they are accustomed to defending their viewpoints in scientific discussions that can sometimes become fiercely combative. The fact that other people see that we have a learning attitude is important for our role as a trusted advisor.”